Friday, April 24, 2009

Friday Five: Bucket List

It's been ages since I've done a Friday Five, but since we're skipping the gym this morning and waiting for the zoo to open I'll play while the kids watch TV. Wonderful parenting.

Anyway, I thought I'd just do my "Travel Bucket List" - places I want to go (or return to) before I die.

1. Russia - - just have always wanted to go.
2. Peru - - would round out my need to get to every continent, and I really want to see the Inca ruins.
3. Malawi - - lived in Ghana and Kenya for 3 months each at various times, Malawi is HIGH on my dream list
4. India
5. Egypt & Jordan (OK, so they're 2 places, but I don't care. They're close enough that I could put them in the same trip, and I want to see the same kinds of archeaological sites in them both.)

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

THIS is the church?

The poor guy has such a bad reputation all from this one story (John 20:19-31). I feel bad for him. I relate to him. I'm 99.9% sure I wouldn't have been able to believe, either, if I had walked in to hear that story like he did.

What's sticking out to me right now, though, in this story is not so much the doubt or the unbelief or the belief, in the end. It's the nature of the community in which Thomas doubts. He wasn't there when they all first gathered. He showed up late and missed the revelation the rest of them had. He even essentially dismisses their testimony by saying he won't believe it until he sees it himself. Doesn't really sound like a way to win friends and influence people, I'd say.

But a week later there he still is. They're back in the house. They're still gathered. They're still scared behind locked doors, but this time Thomas is still with them. I don't know. That sounds like love to me.

Upon the hint of the folks at this week's Sermon Brainwave, I'm going to go track the responses of several of the disciples and "believers" after the resurrection. My quick re-memory tells me they weren't all uniform. They didn't all react the same way. They didn't all believe to the same degree. But on this group (even on Thomas when he was missing) Jesus breathed his breath and passed on the Spirit. Even to this group was given the power to forgive sins. Even to this group came the peace of Christ. THIS is the church?

Yeah - - this IS the church.

Jesus levels the playing field. His gift of resurrection life doesn't come because we believe enough or react the right way. His gift comes because he chooses to give it that we might believe for the first time and continue to believe through times of faith and doubt, in the Lord who lives among us, Christ who rose from the wounds of death, and lives again forever.

The church isn't a collection of perfect believers. The church is a collection of diverse sinners, but together we have received the Spirit of God, and together we carry his name into the world.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

For They were Afraid

Easter Sunday
Mark 16:1-8

I read something recently about the movie Fatal Attraction that I have never known before. This is the 1987 movie starring Michael Douglas and Glenn Close. (No I wasn’t allowed to see it when it came out, but I did see it years later when I was old enough.) The movie is a thriller in which Michael Douglas, a married man, is stalked relentlessly by a colleague from his work, played by Glenn Close.

As is common with movies, when production was complete, the film was shown to test audiences before it was released to the public. Complaints from the test audiences about the ending sent the movie back into production. It was too ambiguous, they said, too disturbing. It didn’t tie up all the loose ends and leave the sympathetic characters, well, happy and in a good place. So, the writers got busy working again. The cast and crew were called back after what they thought had been a wrap. A new, tidier ending was written and shot and that was what was shown in theaters.

We like neat and tidy endings to our stories, which is why the gospel of Mark often gets left behind at Easter. The ending of Mark’s gospel as we heard it today - - well, that’s not really the ending is it? Certainly there has to be something more to it than THAT?! The women ran off, terrified and silent? That doesn’t say much for their faith at all! Where are the appearances of Jesus to his disciples? Where are his comforting words? His wounds of proof? His promised Spirit? His great commission? This ending of Mark’s with a guy in the tomb and the women fleeing in fear, this is not the sort of neat tidy ending we look for, nor was it what Christians in the first few centuries wanted either.

By that time they had other later gospel accounts. They were reading Mark alongside Matthew and Luke and John, but Mark was still the first. Mark was the earliest written account of the Easter morning resurrection and here it was scandalized by its lack of a faithful response. So, the early church sent it back into production. They didn’t do it with malice. They only wanted to provide the ending Mark certainly would have provided himself if he had known how disturbed they would be by the way he left it. In versions of varying detail, they added in some appearances of Jesus to Mary Magdalene and the other disciples. They put some words of commissioning to his mouth and let him be taken up into heaven to at the right hand of God. They made some good news out of the confusion Mark left.

They aren’t objectionable ending pieces, but most scholars agree that they are not how Mark’s original author, again the EARLIEST writer about Easter morning, chose to end his account. Instead they are the work of Christians in the first or second centuries, a hundred to two hundred years after Mark completed his gospel, trying to faithfully share the gospel as they knew it had to be. I mean, how were they supposed to convince anyone of the truth of the resurrection if the women at the tomb – the very first witnesses – couldn’t even believe, if THEY were too terrified to speak? Apparently the early church didn’t think its existence was proof enough that belief took over. This embarrassing loose end was eventually rewritten and wrapped up because for them fear equaled disbelief, and disbelief just couldn’t be the way it all ended.

But, I don’t know about the fear? Why shouldn’t it be a reasonable response? I mean, I can see the church’s concern and stress of leaving that as the last word in what is supposed to be this great story of faith, but if I get into the story myself and put myself in the place of those women, fear seems ENTIRELY appropriate. They never expected what they found. Their conversations on the way weren’t, “What do we do if he’s not there? How will we explain this to the others?” They fully expected to find a sealed tomb (they worried about how to get the stone out of the way) and a wrapped corpse. They fully expected to spend their morning anointing Jesus’ body and giving it the proper preparation and burial it deserved. They never ONCE expected what they found, the stone rolled away and the body gone.

Fear makes perfect sense. Fear that he had been stolen; fear that the Romans were playing a trick; fear that other believers had tried to secretly moved the body to a safer location; fear of this strange man inside the tomb, speaking in code, a speaking of the impossible; fear that grave robbers had stolen it to make a quick buck; fear, even, that they, the women, might be implicated in the crime. Fear makes perfect sense in response to what they find even if they don’t understand or believe that he, that Jesus, was alive.

Oh but how much MORE fearful would they have been if they believed it was true??? In my book, fear doesn’t have to equal disbelief. Fear doesn’t have to be an embarrassing sign that the first witnesses got it wrong. It could be exactly the opposite! The women could be afraid because they do believe; they do understand. Jesus who was dead is no longer. He was crucified, but now he has been raised. He was dead, but now he is alive. He was DEAD, but now he is ALIVE. The most basic truth of life, the truth we learn younger than our parents hope, but early enough that it’s a part of our most basic conscience, the truth that life ends, that death is final, suddenly isn’t true anymore.

And friends, if that were me at that tomb, if that were me speaking to the young man in white in the tomb at dawn on that Sunday morning, I would be more terrified in faith than I ever would be in disbelief.

Believing the good news that Jesus has risen turns everything they knew, everything WE know completely upside down. Jesus who was dead is alive. Jesus who hung broken on the cross is whole and living and loving again. Jesus who promised that where he went, so we also will be taken, didn’t end the story beaten and murdered and suffering. He was raised from the depths of despair; he was brought back from the pits of hell. He was victorious over death, the final answer. He is victorious over death!

And if this is true - - if the tomb is empty and the one who was dead has come back to life - - than the rest of it must be true, too, which can be frightening in its significance itself. The healings and the miracles? If Jesus is alive, certainly he made the blind see and the crippled walk. If Jesus is alive, certainly the bleeding stopped and the sea was calmed. The teachings? If Jesus is alive, than turning the other cheek has a whole new meaning. If Jesus is alive, than the Sabbath is for God’s purposes. If Jesus is alive, than the last really will be first, the poor not the rich, the ignored not the popular. And what about the forgiveness? If Jesus is alive, than the forgiveness - - oh the forgiveness, it must really be true. If Jesus is alive, than we can really be whole, we can really be holy before God. If Jesus is alive, than we really are set free from the things we do and the things we have left undone. If Jesus is alive, than there is new life someday and every day. Thanks be to God!

Our Easter worship is rightfully festive and joyous and probably the most praise-filled worship we will experience all year. Yet, if in the midst of the praise and worship and joy and celebration we aren’t at least a little bit fearful of what this means, then we might be missing the enormity of the occasion which we celebrate, the truth which we proclaim through song and prayers and spoken and written word. If, in the middle of all our Easter celebrations, we aren’t wondering what this resurrection does to the world, we might just be missing the importance of its truth.

The resurrection changes everything. Everything we thought we knew from the beginning of time is different, is changed, is destroyed, because Jesus is alive. Death no longer has the final answer. Sin and pain and emptiness and darkness do not win. Love is not about making people feel good; love is about giving yourself to others, giving yourself FOR others. The powerful and violent do not have the last say, instead the peaceful and the humble speak for God.

Jesus’ resurrection, his conquering of death, shows us that all that he did and all that he said truly comes from God, because only God could raise him from the dead. The resurrection means that the things he asked us to do, the calling he gave us, the standard he set, the love he poured on us and commanded us to share - - those must also be true. And really, that is as terrifying as it is wonderful.

The empty tomb means we’re not in all this alone. The empty tomb means that God didn’t just come to walk on the earth for a little while, and then BAM suddenly it was all over. The empty tomb means that Christ is alive! He has risen indeed, and everything he said, everything he taught, every name he called and every command he spoke, came from the mouth of God. To ignore our call, to ignore the call to serve one another, our community and our world, with the love and grace of God, is to ignore the Word of God. To hold back our love, to live in judgment of others instead of with hospitality toward all is to try to squelch the love of God because Jesus is alive, and what he said is true.

The morning looked the same after the women went to the tomb, but everything was different. The world looks the same for us, but it’s completely different. Words can hardly express this. What words were the women supposed to choose to convey what they understood in fear? What sounds should be the first to overcome the silence of their belief?

Mark doesn’t record them. Their silence says so much more, but we know they eventually spoke out about what they knew, what they believed. We know they did by our very presence here today! If they hadn’t turned their fear and silence into praise and proclamation we wouldn’t be here proclaiming what they discovered - - the tomb was empty! Jesus is alive! If they hadn’t let the story out, we wouldn’t be here in fear and in joy telling and living the story of God’s love that destroys all our ideas of how the world works.

But here we are, part of the story. Here we are, receiving God’s grace. Here we are, in spite of their hesitant voice, in spite of OUR hesitant voices, in spite of our fear, in spite of ourselves – Here we are in fear and in joy celebrating the joy of the resurrection.

Don’t let our fear silence us. Don’t let our concern about what the others will think keep us silent. “Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death and on those in the tombs bestowing life.” May we proclaim this good and life-restoring news to the world with our words and our lives - - Jesus is alive!

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Vote for God and Jesus (and the Holy Spirit)

I didn't have a chance to go vote in some of our local elections earlier today, so on our way home from dinner with my father-in-law, who is in town for a meeting, my husband dumped me at the door of the Methodist church that is our polling place about 15 minutes before they closed. When our almost 4 year old daughter (4D) realized we weren't heading toward our house she asked where we were going. I told her I needed to go vote so they were going to wait in the car for me to do that.

4D: What's vote mean?
Me: It's when I get to go choose who I want to be our leaders.
4D: God and Jesus are our leaders. You should choose them.
Me: Well, their names aren't going to be on the paper, so I'll have to choose other people.
4D: They are the real leaders, Mommy, you should get to choose them.
Me (sort of feeling caught and unsure of what to say, I choose to check her theology): What about the Holy Spirit? Isn't that a leader, too?
4D: HOLY SPIRIT?!?!? That's not a leader. Just God and Jesus.
(Ugh, we Presbyterians really have some work to do!)
Husband: Really? You're going to work on the Trinity at age 4?
Me: Well, she brought the other two up as our leaders. I might as well try to fix this Holy Spirit problem now!

After I came out from voting (and by the way the church was having a dress rehearsal for their Last Supper reenactment drama) - -
4D: Were they in there, Mom? Did you get to vote for God and Jesus?
Me (laughing because of the visions of the reenactment going through my head): Yeah, they were in there, but I didn't get to vote for them.
4D: Well, they are our leaders right? Even if you can't vote for them?
Me: Yep, we got them without even getting to choose. Even the Holy Spirit.

Family in Christ

So, after my worrying about Good Friday I found some inspiration at The Painted Prayerbook. I don't have big answers about the crucifixion (although, some thoughts earlier today when I was asked about Judas sort of led that direction and gave me some room to ponder alternatives to "God's plan" thinking), but I'm OK with that. Preaching doesn't have to be about (maybe even SHOULDN'T be) about giving the answers. Preaching can be about living in the middle of the questions. So this crucifixion DID happen. It wasn't pretty. Jesus did die. How do we live because of it? Who are WE (not we as in lots of individuals, but we as people of faith, people of God, community in Christ) because of it? How did Jesus behave in the midst of all that was going on and what does that tell us?

Here's what I noticed (with some help from the reflection linked above) Jesus knew it was all finished only after one final act of ministry, even ministry FROM the cross (John 19:28). Jesus knew it was all finished only after giving his mother to John and John to his mother. His ministry and his earthly mission was complete when he made family where before there was none. His death brought them together in a way his life with them did not.

I am thinking about how roles change when someone dies. I remember my grandmother's death when I was in the 8th grade. She was divorced probably 25 years before, right after the birth of her 4th living child, 18 years after the birth of her first child, my mother. She never remarried. My mother was out of the house when her youngest sister was growing up, so they never really had too much of a sibling relationship in some sense. When my grandmother died that really became exaggerated. My mother took on the role of mothering her sister, her sister with a newborn and a difficult marriage of her own. Before their mother's death they were sisters in a distance sort of way, but after she was gone it was almost like parent and child. Roles change when someone close dies.

One of the quotes from Peter Storey that sticks out for me in the Painted Prayerbook reflections is "From the cross where he is nailed, Jesus nails us to each other." The pain he felt, the death he died, threw us together, nailed us together in ways never would have imagined otherwise. The body Christ comes together not because we are related by blood, not because we are united in theology, not because we agree with one another all the time. The body of Christ comes together broken and battered and beaten from many sides because we are united in the broken body of Christ on the cross.

We are united in our betrayal that makes us part of the crowd that cries "Crucify him."

We are united in our desire that THIS, this torturous, humiliating, excruciating death of an innocent man, will NEVER. HAPPEN. AGAIN.

We are united in our sinfulness that doesn't stop it from happening anyway.

We are united at the foot of the cross that displays our brokenness, our unworthiness, our confusion about who we are and what we are doing.

Yet, at this same cross we are united in our blessedness that comes from the forgiveness we receive from the one we put upon it.

We are united in our adoption into a new family, given to each other for love, nurture, and support on the journey.

We are united in our call to make sure this far-reaching, never-ending, life-giving love is known to the world.

I can't make sense of the cross, why it happened, who was at fault, could it or should it have been stopped. I can't make sense of it, and truthfully, I doubt those who say they can. I can, however, see in the cross of Jesus a mandate to live a new way, with new life, cleansed from sin and joined with others in this family of faith.

(Art is "Mary and John at the Foot of the Cross" by Hieronymus Bosch)

What's with Judas?

This morning I got a FB message from a friend, a member of the church I served as associate pastor in my first call. The question came up, I think, partly because of a topic coming up at a Wednesday night class tomorrow at his church and partly because a silly quiz on FB said that the disciple I most resemble is Judas. (FANTASTIC!) Here is the message and my response.


I really enjoyed your sermon you posted! I was wondering if you could give me some information on Judas? I have always felt he has gotten a bad rap, other than for killing himself. I always thought he was "chosen" to be the one who would sell out Jesus. I am not a big predestination person but if God uses us as a tool I feel we don't have much say in it. RB is going to do a little something on this in F3 Wednesday.

Thanks for any light you can shed on the subject and I really do enjoy reading your sermons on FB.

My Response:


I'd like to go to R's class, too! I don't know about the whole Judas thing either. Shoot, I struggle with the idea that God WANTED Jesus to die. The crucifixion as a "plan" is hard for me to swallow - as something that was inevitable because of human sinfulness and redeemable out of God's graciousness, I can get behind that a little easier.

So Judas as someone who was doing what God planned for him to do is hard for me to take. My running thoughts are that maybe he didn't do it because he HAD to or was programmed by God to, but maybe he did it because he is sinful like all of us are sinful. He was greedy like all of us are greedy, he was confused or threathened or SOMETHING like all of us are at some points in our lives. His betrayal then, isn't his act of discipleship (following God's plan - - because it's hard for me to agree that betraying Jesus is part of discipleship - following God), but something he did out of sin, separating himself from God.

I tend not to believe there is one master plan or script that was written eons ago that we all just play out. That doesn't seem gracious and loving to me. Instead God creates us with a purpose (or purposes), calls on our lives, ideas of who we REALLY are if sin were not in the picture, but then God gives us free will to live our lives. Sometimes we are able, by God's grace, to tune in to that person we were created to be, and with faith and humility we follow God's lead and direction for our lives. Often we screw it up, in big and little ways. We sin. We don't live up to all that God wants for us and has gifted us to be. We don't sin because God wrote that in a plan for us, but we sin because God loved us so much we weren't made into little holy robots. God loved us by limiting himself and giving us freedom.

But the love and graciousness continues - - not only did God give us freedom, freedom that even led to the killing of his son, God also found a way to redeem us from the messes we get ourselves into. Maybe God did not WANT Jesus to be killed, but maybe God, in knowing how we humans have a tendency to screw things up, knew Jesus would be killed and found a way to redeem what happened, by raising him from the dead. So we tend toward sin, and sin leads to death, but by God's grace and mercy, death (the result of sin) won't win. God gets the final say, and God says life will win, no matter what we sinful humans do to get in the way. So even Judas, who really got the ball rolling on Jesus' last days, even Judas and the sin he had in his life (no more or no less than the sin of you and me) can (and I believe) will be redeemed by Jesus, whose love and grace is greater than death.

Hmmmm...Wow. I didn't have that thought through or planned or tucked away in my brain for just this question, but thinking it out on screen was a gift to me! Hmmm...I didn't plan to preach on Maundy Thursday, but maybe I will after all!

(I'll do "predestination" another time. What you're talking about is actually predetermination - - that we do has been planned or determined by God ahead of time. Predestination refers specifically to salvation. Presbyterians traditionally, but not all across the board, believe in presdestination when it comes to salvation. We do NOT profess belief in predetermination.)


photo credit: Carla216 via photopin cc

Monday, April 6, 2009

Confronting Good Friday

I'm facing my first REALLY packed Holy Week. Last year was pretty packed, but this year is REALLY packed. I preached and led worship for Palm Sunday yesterday. We have Maundy Thursday service at which I've decided not to preach a full sermon, but that will require a lot of prep and writing and explanation along the way. We're going to have a worship service with multiple stations for reflection/interaction tied to Lent and Maundy Thursday in particular. It will also include the Lord's Supper. Good Friday I am preaching at our joint Baptist/Presbyterian service, but I am not creating the rest of the service outline which is nice. Then Easter Sunday, of course. Thankfully I got on a little tear of productivity and inspiration and got that whole bulletin done last Friday. Now I just need to write a sermon and children's sermon. That's all. HA!

Good Friday is what is on my plate right now. It's what I guess I am avoiding by posting now. This is actually my first Good Friday sermon. I've been ordained almost 7 years (wow - - that seems a lot longer than it feels) and I've never preached on Good Friday. My last church only worshiped on Maundy Thursday, mid-week Holy Week. I've got lots of Palm Sunday and Maundy Thursday sermons! Last year was my first Easter sermon (boy did that feel odd 6 years into ministry), but this year is my first Good Friday sermon.

I don't even know where to start. "Bloody Jesus" is not something I've ever been really comfortable with. I don't get it. I don't know why or what it's all about. "Jesus' blood for me" sounds pretty barbaric, and I'm not always totally sure what I think about this idea of Jesus on a cross as a divine plan. Certainly there had to be a different, better way. Certainly this image of God as blood-thirsty isn't really what it's all about. I know there are all sorts of different theories or theologies of the cross and writings about atonement from all sorts of different spectra.

But really, I don't go looking for answers or explanations. I know I don't get it and don't understand it, but some rational explanation of an irrational event isn't what I'm looking for. It isn't going to make it better in one "fell swoop." I'm feeling confronted by the crucifixion in a way that is unavoidable this time. I've avoided much thought about it because I haven't needed to think about it. Now I do. Now I have to look for the Word of God, or let the Word of God find me, in this text. God bless me in this task today!

photo credit: Lawrence OP via photopin cc

Sunday, April 5, 2009

Join the Parade

Palm Sunday
Mark 11:1-11

It has been said that Christians go to church on Palm Sunday because we love a parade. To some extent it’s true, isn’t it? I mean, who doesn’t love a parade, especially a church parade with the children we know and love meandering or marching purposefully among us, up and down the aisles, waving their palms, inspecting their palms, uh, tripping over their palms, maybe even misusing their palms. Well, whatever happens, we do, we love a parade!

Parades are festive! They are exciting, and unpredictable. They allow us to celebrate our heroes, laugh with the jesters among us, rally around our leaders, be dazzled by the artists among us. They help us feel good about the good that’s going on in our community and in our world, and help us forget the things going poorly, the struggles, the worries, the concerns in our lives. Parades, whether you are marching in the street or watching from the sidewalk, are events of importance, celebration, unity of spirit!

The parades I have attended since moving here have been the first parades I have seen in quite a long while. For each of these we played that game of chance where we tried to leave the house early enough to get a decent seat, but not SO early that we were sitting the freezing cold or bright sun (depending on the parade in question, of course) too long. We have done pretty well in all of our parade viewing attempts, but each time I forget how the line between marcher and spectator becomes blurred at a parade.

I have noticed at our local parades how as the crowd is waiting and the streets we line are still open, that, obviously, we spectators are all very careful about staying on the sidewalks, in our proper place along the route. However, as the parade gets closer, partly because of the crowding where we’re standing, and partly, I think, out of the mounting excitement, we start to inch out into the street. Whether we signed up to march or not, everyone loves a parade, and we all want to be just little bit closer to the action. Parades have this way of blurring the lines between spectator and participant in a way that makes us all feel like we’re part of the action.

Imagine being a part of the parade when Jesus entered Jerusalem the week of his death. Certainly the crowds that joined him in the parade didn’t know that was what would happen a few days later. How could they? Jesus had predicted his death before his ride on a colt, but those closest to him didn’t even believe him, certainly the folks who just happened to live along the parade route wouldn’t have believed him either, even if they had known what he had said. The crowds didn’t know exactly where he was going or what was about to happen to him, but, well, everyone loves a parade, and what they did know was what they had heard about this man.

As the murmurs made their way along the route, “This man heals. He throws the demons into pigs and sends them down hills. I heard he EVEN brought a girl back to life,” the excitement grew. As the stories passed from spectator to spectator their admiration blossomed. As the prestige of the one coming became more widely known the desire to be a part of his parade became overwhelming. Those who were watching joined the parade. They laid down their own clothes to make a path and keep the dry dust of the road under control. They ran to the fields and cut palms to lay before a man worthy of such a parade and honor. They joined in the fervor surrounding this Jesus, shouting together, chanting as one, “Hosanna! Hosanna! Save us! Save us!” The spectators became participants as they fell in step with Jesus, joining his parade, showing him honor, worshiping him even, as they walked down the road to Jerusalem.

Millenia later we try to reenact this scene, remember it with our minds and our bodies, but, let’s be honest, we don’t come that close. A friend of mine was musing this week about what it would take to get the adults in her congregation to join the Palm Sunday parade. I know of several churches where pastors, for the first time, were going to gather worshipers outside of the sanctuary before worship and let the whole congregation be a part of the parade. In some congregations this is already a tradition, but for many, it is not only foreign, but it would probably feel awkward, maybe even embarrassing or ridiculous.

I imagine if we tried it here some might make excuses. For one, the palms are for the children. Let’s just leave it at that. Let them have their fun, their day to march. We don’t need to take that away from them. Also, the symbols are sort of lost on us. Cutting down palm branches probably wouldn’t be our first instinct for trying to honor someone worthy of a spontaneous parade. Trying to get into that parade might feel forced, inauthentic, just plain weird. And finally, some of us just aren’t that demonstrative in our worship. I don’t mean that as a critique on way or another, just a statement of the situation. Some of us are just not palm wavers.

And, you know, I think that’s OK. I think it’s OK that some of us in the body of Christ worship with arms in the air and eyes upturned, while others worship with hands folded and heads bowed. There has been a lot of ink spilled and words exchanged in this country and around the world about the right or better way to worship. Much drama has played out over whether this music or that is right or acceptable, this order or that better leads the people to praise, this style of communion or that honors the meaning of the sacrament. Drama has risen up about drama in worship, or the use of visual arts, or dance. We have heard it said that wherever two or three are gathered, Christ is there. Well, it also seems to work that wherever two or three are gathered, there are 3 or 4 opinions about what worship should look like.

A 19th century Danish theologian, Soren Kierkegaard, besides having one of the best last names EVER, wrote extensively about the drama of worship. One of my favorite writings of his, and really of anyone’s, about worship, really turned on its head my understanding of what worship is and should be. Kierkegaard wrote that worship is drama, and not because we tend to fight over what it looks like or feels like. Worship is a drama because there are actors or participants, an audience, and even stage hands or techies or directors. That doesn’t seem horribly earth-shaking, I know. Even the way we structure our building seems similar to the design of theaters and auditoriums. However the way Kierkegaard assigned these roles is entirely different from the way we traditionally organize our space.

According to Kierkegaard, the pastor and other worship leaders are NOT the actors in the play. They are not performing the script for the enjoyment of the congregation-audience. Instead, in the worship drama, God is the audience of one and those in the congregation are the actors. Pastors, preachers, lay readers, musicians, they are all the behind the scenes support, directing traffic in the wings of the stage, setting the tone by designing the set, adding the soundtrack from the pit, giving words to the actors when words are necessary, but again the ACTORS are in the congregation. The worshipers are the ones who join the parade.

This worship we show up for each Sunday, it’s about more than what I like, what I want to do, what entertains me or makes me feel good. This worship we come to participate in is about doing everything we can to bring glory and honor to God. It’s about gathering all our gifts and desires to please God and waving them before Jesus, laying them at his feet, showing him that we believe he is worthy of our time, our talents, and our treasure. This worship we embody is about using everything we have and everything we are as this body of Christ to love God and love others in God’s name. It’s not about any one of us; it’s about all of us praising God.

Worship is not about watching the show, being entertained, standing on the sidelines, waving our palms. Worship is about joining the parade and walking with Jesus. In this way worship isn’t even just about what happens in this place for one hour (on a USUAL Sunday) each week, or for 30 minutes on Wednesday night or for special services during the week. Worship is about aligning our praise and our lives with his not only when the crowd swells and the excitement mounds, but also when he GETS ANGRY at the injustice in the world, turning over the tables of those who cheat others, also when he KNEELS at the feet of his friends, washing the caked on mud and muck off of their tired, sore feet, also when he GIVES THANKS to God for bread that will be shared with one who will betray him.

In this way, worship isn’t just something we do on Sunday morning in this or any sanctuary. I will wholeheartedly make the case that it STARTS here where the community is gathered in the name of Christ to give praise and honor together, but it doesn’t end when those hands hit 10:30 (if you’re lucky). Worship extends from this place to go wherever we go, to do whatever we do. Worship is the drama we enact, it’s the story we tell with our lives that is pleasing and gives joy to God, the story of acting on behalf of others who are weak or oppressed, the story of humbly serving those whom we love and those whom we have never met, the story of forgiving even those who hurt us deeply. Worship is what we do, not what we attend or witness.

At one point this week I was looking through pictures of Palm Sunday worship in other churches on the internet. The title of an otherwise unremarkable picture jumped out at me. The amateur photographer had named it “Lay down your palms – Pick up the cup.” If we are REALLY going to worship Jesus, if we are REALLY going to join the parade to honor him and be blessed by him, it has to be more than just the words we say and the palms we wave, rejoicing at the happy seasons and celebrations. We have to be ready to put that stuff aside sometimes and worship him by taking up the cup that he takes. We can come rejoicing with the crowds on Palm Sunday, we can even celebrate with joy and thanksgiving the meal he shares with us today, but we must also be ready to walk with him into the somber and confusing upper room, the dark and confrontation garden, the painful and humiliating cross. Then we will have become more than just spectators. Then we will be worshiping God.